Neither Capitalism nor Socialism but … what?
Deaglán de Bréadún
A friend of mine is fond of quoting the American humorist and commentator, the late H.L. Mencken, who said that, “If all the economists were laid end to end, they still wouldn’t reach a conclusion”.
Bright Intelligent Fellow From Offaly meets Ban the Man (Photograph by Dara Mac Dónaill)
Professor Amartya Sen is a Nobel Prizewinning economist who does reach conclusions. Maybe that’s why he got the Nobel gong. In any case, he gave a lecture at Trinity College Dublin that was notable for its lucidity – a rare enough quality in outpourings from the economic high priests.
His message was that the world economy is in a fix. There was too much deregulation. Capitalism, at least in its unadulterated form, doesn’t work. But neither did Soviet-style Socialism. We need a new system, which he didn’t name. It sounded like the Social Market – essentially capitalist but with an interventionist welfare State.
None of this was particularly original, it has to be said. But it was cheering to hear a leading economist saying something other than, “We gotta zilch those expensive poverty programmes to get the world back on track.”
Professor Sen dwelt at length on the thoughts and career of Adam Smith (1723-90). Often seen as the prime ideologue of Capitalism, Smith was much more complex than most people realise. Sen quoted the opening sentence from, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (published 1759), the first book the Scottish philosopher-economist wrote: “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”
This is a profound and even moving thought. Perhaps – at the risk of sounding Monty Pythonesque – Smith is here expressing the Meaning of Life itself. You do good for others, just for the sake of it and with no expectation of any return.
The Sen lecture was chaired by our former president, Mary Robinson, in her capacity as Chancellor of Trinity College. Two thoughts struck me as I sat there. 1) Isn’t it about time Mary Robinson got the Nobel Peace Prize? 2) My mind was carried back to a rather more dramatic gathering in another part of Trinity, way back in the mid-1970s.
That was at a time when the Coalition government of the day, led by Liam Cosgrave, seemed to many as if it was about to abolish our cherished and dearly-held civil liberties. This was the period when a Garda “Heavy Gang” was allegedly beating up suspected trainrobbers and other members or associates of republican paramilitary groups and when it looked as if the death penalty was about to be used against a couple – Noel and Marie Murray – who were described as anarchists and had been convicted of the appalling murder of a Garda during a bank robbery in Dublin.
Mary Robinson spoke out loud and clear, saying members of the Oireachtas should be “like misers with gold” when it came to the fundamental freedoms in Bunreacht na hÉireann. The legendary Kader Asmal, then a Trinity law lecturer and later a government minister in post-apartheid South Africa, used the occasion to promote a new organisation, the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, which is still highly active today and has been lobbying energetically against the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill providing for gangland crime cases to be tried without a jury. (Since writing the above, I have found a news report on that meeting in The Irish Times of 6 September 1976: it was called to protest at the then-government’s introduction of a State of Emergency, which led to the seven-day detention provisions that were allegedly used by the “Heavy Gang” to ill-treat persons in custody.)
But to return to Professor Sen. He seemed to regard Soviet-style socialism as the only model. But the traditional version was and is quite different. In fact, the classical socialists and Marxists were quite horrified by the Bolshevik coup of October 1917 and the subsequent attempt to leapfrog the “bourgeois democratic” stage in Russia by going straight from feudalism to socialism or communism.
As I understand it, the classical socialist view was that a party based on the labour and trade union movement would come to power by democratic means and introduce the changes necessary to create a fair and equal society. But there would continue to be elections and the people would have the option of throwing out this party and replacing it with a pro-capitalist one if they wished. That’s democracy. Even someone as far left as Rosa Luxemburg believed in this approach. The post-war Attlee government in Britain is probably the classic example, bringing in free healthcare and a myriad other changes and then giving way to the Tories when the people so decreed.
Professor Sen was not the only prominent international figure who visited our shores this week. We also had Ban ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, who was here for two days. Whatever his record on practical issues, he cuts a less-impressive figure than his predecessor Kofi Annan, who spoke English fluently and well and carried himself with great dignity and grace. Ban is quieter and more low-key although it has to be said that he seems to have gotten the UN through the period when you could hardly turn to the foreign page of a serious paper without reading about another alleged financial scandal. Ban looks the part of Secretary General but his English is pretty feeble: you don’t have to be a cultural imperialist to expect the world’s top civil servant to have a better grasp of the main international language.
The commitment of this State and its institutions to the UN is impressive and close to 90 Irish personnel have died on peacekeeping duties for the international organisation. Yet the general public know very little about the world body and the grand old vision of The Parliament of Man, like the classical concept of socialism, seems to have gotten buried in the mists of time.
For I dipt into the future, far as human eye could see,
Saw the vision of the world, and all the wonder that would be;
Saw the heavens fill with commerce, argosies of magic sails,
Pilots of the purple twilight, dropping down with costly bales;
Heard the heavens fill with shouting, and there rain’d a ghastly dew
From the nations’ airy navies grappling in the central blue;
Far along the world-wide whisper of the south-wind rushing warm,
With the standards of the peoples plunging thro’ the thunder-storm;
Till the war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle-flags were furl’d
In the Parliament of man, the Federation of the world.
There the common sense of most shall hold a fretful realm in awe,
And the kindly earth shall slumber, lapt in universal law.
(From Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Locksley Hall)